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Funny Business

Poking fun at cyberspace.

The new economy is serious business. It’s producing technology that makes people’s lives richer — and makes us feel overwhelmed. It’s generating great wealth — and worries about those left behind.

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That doesn’t mean we have to take ourselves so seriously.

One of the most welcome recent developments on the Web is the explosion of humor targeted at the Web itself, along with the business practices that it’s unleashed. We’re not talking about those moronic jokes that your friends keep emailing you about Bill Gates, Monica Lewinsky, or some other celeb. This is genuinely witty stuff from genuine “.com” insiders.

Consider, for example, Fade to Black (www.fadetoblack.com), an online humor magazine that prides itself on “Leading the world to higher consciousness through mockery and cheap publicity stunts.” One of its more hilarious mockeries is a parody of Yahoo! Fade to Black’s version, Jewhoo! (www.jewhoo.com), organizes famous people of Jewish descent according to Yahoo! categories, such as Arts & Humanities, Business & Economy, or Sports. Click on a category and you’ll get an alphabetical listing of Jewish greats in that area. Of course, you can also search by name or keyword.

Free-houses Inc. (www.summation.net/freehouses) mocks those offers of “free” products that are usually too good to be true — both for customers and for the companies that supposedly make money by giving stuff away. The site advertises three- and four-bedroom homes available in such high-price areas as Palo Alto and Beverly Hills, California; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Scarsdale, New York. The good news: All the houses are available for free. The bad news: You’ve got to sign a 30-year agreement to purchase maid service, a personal butler, and telephone and Internet access from Free-houses Inc. You also have to be willing to put up with banner advertising in each bedroom and in front of the toilet.

One problem with Web parodies, of course, is that the Web is such a parody of itself. Big business makes a tougher target — not because it’s any less deserving, but because the raw material isn’t nearly as rich. The Corporation (www.thecorporation.com) is a fictional company that manufactures humor. In an orientation letter, the Corporation’s CEO, F. Walter Ellison Jr., welcomes us to the company. “The Corporation has mounted successful hostile takeovers of every world company worthy of acquisition. Whomever you used to work for, we probably own them.” The site’s “Humor Product Archive” indexes the Corporation’s products, including a carpal-tunnel workshop and a review of the new CD-ROM children’s book “Do Whatever the Media Tells You To.”

The Corporation is the brainchild of Reed Berkowitz, 31, a free-agent computer consultant, and Paul Pierce, 32, a graphic designer for a prominent San Francisco-area game company. Initially, the site was merely a place for them to vent their work frustrations and laugh at their own lives. “It was a place to redirect creative impulses that we couldn’t express at work,” explains Berkowitz. “It kept us out of trouble.”

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Not for long. “The Corporation has become its own character,” Pierce says. “People react as if they’re employees of the site.” In fact, Pierce and Berkowitz get lots of email from people pretending to work for the Corporation. Recently, an “employee” expressed concern about the site not being updated often enough. “That guy,” Pierce says, “got an email telling him he was fired.”

One thing about the Web: There’s a thin line between physical reality and virtual reality. People who meet electronically find ways to meet in person. Online stores such as Amazon.com build warehouses. Why should Web humor be any different?

Heather Gold, who likes to call herself (with tongue planted firmly in cheek) an eHumorist, uses her site (www.subvert.com) to land business for her stand-up routine on technology. But Gold admits that the Internet crowd can be tough. “Irony is lost on people in this business,” she says. “I got several emails in response to a column I did on ‘butter. com,’ which poked fun at this portal stuff. People thought I’d nailed a great opportunity.”

Sidebar: Cybersatire

Cybersatirist Bob Hirschfeld, now 43, came to Washington, DC hoping to make an impact in politics. But when he took a job with a female lobbyist who later posed nude for Playboy, he realized that “getting in bed with Congress” was an idea that some people took literally.

So he started writing satire and contributing to the “Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” In 1995, he signed on with America Online to do a humor zone. Now he has his own site, Bob’s Fridge (www.bobsfridge.com).

What’s funny about computers?

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“You always hear how computers free up our time. They do. Every time your PC crashes, it frees you up to take care of errands. Why do you think Microsoft uses the slogan, ‘Where do you want to go today?’ I need to pick up laundry, get my car repaired . . .”

The Web transforms everything it touches. How is it changing humor?

“Most humor these days is the in-your-face-until-you-get-acne type. Humor on the Web is about wit.”

How do you know you’re funny if you can’t hear an audience laughing?

“Email. I get messages from strangers thanking me for making them laugh. Funny thing, the Internet.”

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